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Secret Ingredient in the Herbicide Roundup Kills Human Cells

(Beyond Pesticides, July 1, 2009) Researchers have found that one of the so-called “inert” ingredients in the popular herbicide product Roundup can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. Over 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use in the U.S. and can be mixed with pesticide “active” ingredients; however these chemicals are not disclosed to consumers or users on pesticide product labels due to EPA’s intepretation (many would say incorrect interpretation) of federal pesticide law. Many inerts are classified as highly toxic, while others have not been adequately studied.

About 100 million pounds of Roundup are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year and until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate the active ingredient in Roundup, rather than the mixture of “inert” ingredients found in the herbicidal product. In this new study, “Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells,” researchers found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns, and which correspond to low levels of residues in food or feed. One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.” POEA is a surfactant, or detergent, derived from animal fat. It is added to Roundup and other herbicides to help them penetrate plants’ surfaces, making the weed killer more effective.

The researchers compared the formulations (glyphosate with POEA) with glyphosate and POEA alone. All formulations cause total cell death within 24 hours, through an inhibition of the mitochondrial succinate dehydrogenase activity, and necrosis, by release of cytosolic adenylate kinase measuring membrane damage. While glyphosate also damaged cells, the researchers found that POEA changes human cell permeability and amplifies toxicity induced already by glyphosate, through apoptosis and necrosis. POEA alone was more deadly to cells than glyphosate. The study concluded that the work clearly confirms that the adjuvants in Roundup formulations are not biologically or chemically inert. Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market, according to the research, could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food and feed derived from Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens. The research team also suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, contends that the methods used in the study do not reflect realistic conditions and that their product, which has been sold since the 1970s, is safe when used as directed. EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both recognize POEA as an inert ingredient. POEA is allowed in products certified organic by the USDA. EPA has concluded that it is not dangerous to public health or the environment. The researchers however, believe that their results highlight the need for health agencies to reconsider the safety of Roundup.

“The authorizations for using these Roundup herbicides must now clearly be revised since their toxic effects depend on, and are multiplied by, other compounds used in the mixtures,” said Gilles-Eric Seralini, Ph.D., a University of Caen molecular biologist and lead researcher, wrote.

World controversy over the safety of the weed killer continues. In May, an environmental group petitioned Argentina’s Supreme Court, seeking a temporary ban on glyphosate use after an Argentine scientist and local activists reported a high incidence of birth defects and cancers in people living near crop-spraying areas. Scientists there also linked genetic malformations in amphibians to glyphosate. In addition, last year in Sweden, a scientific team found that exposure is a risk factor for people developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Inert ingredients are often less scrutinized than active pest-killing ingredients. Since specific herbicide formulations are protected as trade secrets, manufacturers are not required to publicly disclose them. Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental organization, says that the term “inert ingredient” is often misleading. EPA classifies all pesticide ingredients that do not harm pests as “inert,” Ms. Cox said. Inert compounds, therefore, are not necessarily biologically or toxicologically harmless.

Other inert ingredients have been found to potentially affect human health. Many amplify the effects of active ingredients by helping them penetrate clothing, protective equipment and cell membranes, or by increasing their toxicity. A study recently found that an herbicide formulation containing atrazine caused DNA damage, which can lead to cancer, while atrazine alone did not.

For years, scientists and activists have been calling for inert disclosures. In 2006, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, along with Beyond Pesticides and other allies, filed a legal petition challenging the EPA’s policy of secrecy on these inert ingredients. The court found that manufacturers are not able to protect inerts as proprietary from competitors, but only keep the ingredients secret from consumers and users. An agency decision on the issue is due this fall. A December 2006 commentary in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ journal Environmental Health Perspectives calls for improvements in pesticide regulation and “inert” ingredient disclosure, citing an extensive body of literature illustrating the concern over related human and environmental health effects. In May 2009, the California State Senate’s Health Committee passed legislation that requires the disclosure of inert ingredients in pesticides before they are approved for use by state regulators, and that provides public health agencies and emergency responders timely access to complete ingredient lists of aerial pesticides. For more about pesticide ingredients, visit “What’s in a Pesticide” by Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Environmental Health News


One Response to “Secret Ingredient in the Herbicide Roundup Kills Human Cells”

  1. 1
    Catherine Says:

    I tried to share the EPA commenting and got this message, when trying to link to your article and the EPA. I really believe Monsanto is behind this.

    Warning: This Message Contains Blocked Content
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